Saturday, May 31, 2008

Happy 21st Birthday, Elie

Yes, I'll repeat this next week when it is Elie's Hebrew birthday - and God willing, we will all celebrate it together. For now, on the English calendar, Elie turned 21 today - I spoke to him a few minutes ago as he was on his way to a later dinner on base. He sounds fine - others knew it was his birthday and wished him well. His uncle was going to call him from the US on Friday - in short, a birthday, come and gone, and a boy turned man reaching the age of 21.

"I called so you could wish me a happy birthday," I told Elie a few minutes ago. "After all, I AM the one who gave birth."

"Ha, ha" he replied and I could hear the smile come through. It's another of those moments we cherish - he's safe. He's fine. He's not cold or hot. He's 21 years old and almost half way through his army service. We've made it this far, learned so much along the way.

On Thursday, I met a man who told me this was his last year in the army. He's turning 40 years old and will finish his reserve duty this year and be formally discharged from the army.

He was helping me with Hebrew terms and abbreviations - it's "the" way in the army. So much is abbreviated; they speak in initials and I'm often so caught up with listening, I don't want to admit that I don't understand a word he is saying. This was my chance - I asked all the terms I could think of. I should have been suspicious - at least had an inkling, but I was more interested in his ability to tell me all the words rather than wonder why he knew them. Other Israelis haven't always known, but I forgot that and focused on getting down the details.

G'dud - yes, yes, I know that one already; Pluga too. And solela? It's like a pluga for artillery, and as he explained, the light finally dawned.

"Where does your son serve?"

"Artillery. Where did you serve?"

"Artillery. Which unit?"

And so it continued. Turns out he was very much like Elie, doing the same thing for his unit as Elie is doing now. Ami also went through the commanders' course and knew the bases, the places, the jobs and the life that Elie is living now. We talked of unit numbers and where they are stationed and some of the experiences Elie has had.

Ami's married with children - and every year, as many men in Israel do, he goes off to do his reserve duty in the artillery division and this year, after so many years, he will finally finish. Elie is as close to the beginning of his service as this man is to the end - in a very real sense, that is what Israel is about. Living your life, always with this other reality in the background. In a few months, this man will go for the last time to give his month of service to the nation. Elie has almost two decades ahead of him doing the same.

Years ago, when I was in college, a friend decided to move to Israel and join the army. Gavriel came to visit me at the university on his way to the airport. We sat and talked. It was my dream to come to Israel, and yet here was this friend, doing what I'd always dreamed of, while I continued on in college. He left to catch his plane; I went into the library where I had a job.

I still had some time before my job started, so I went into this little room where the university library sold off old books it didn't want anymore for very little. While I was scanning the shelves, I saw a book, "Such Were Our Fighters: Stories of Soldiers Who Died for Israel." I remember feeling like my heart had stopped. "God, are you sending me a message?" I thought. I bought the book and took it outside and sat on the steps. When I scanned the names in the table of contents, there was not a single Gavriel, Gavi, Gabriel, Gabe. Nothing. Not a one. Ok, I thought to myself, that is the message - God is telling me that Gavi will be fine.

I remembered that feeling when I was talking to Ami. I decided that in the way of things, this was another way that God was sending me a message. Here is a man who was a boy. He entered the army, as your son did, and went into the artillery division. Like Elie, he followed the same path, did the same things, commanded the same kind of unit. He finished his three years in the army and went on to make a life and a family while continuing to serve his country.

And here is Elie. Twenty-one years old - and he is where I have always wanted him to be, doing what I have always dreamed he would do. No, not just serving in an army, but being part of a country for which he cares enough to fight; living in a land to which he has dedicated his future and his present. Happy birthday, Elie - be safe and celebrate.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

The Will, The Wish and The Whim

There are three commanders within the tight unit where Elie is currently assigned. Each has his responsibilities, his team and equipment during the week. Just as we stop for Shabbat, the army too goes into a slightly different mode. In Jewish law, the Sabbath has many laws and restrictions. The sum total of these "restrictions" frees you to experience the full richness of the Sabbath. Without them, Shabbat would be another day.

A friend once told me, “you are so lucky, you have Shabbat.” At first, I thought that was ridiculous – Shabbat is a gift we all have but in the end, I realized she was right. By living with the restrictions, even when they are hard, we give ourselves a wonderful gift. We free ourselves from the regular and mundane, so that we can enrich our lives. It doesn't matter if we have pressing work deadlines. The lighting of the candles Friday night signals an end to our connection with that world.

We have only this one day away from all worldly pressures and we treasure it. It’s true, we don’t travel on the Sabbath. Some would think that backwards or restrictive, but we feel that we are blessed to be locked in our own world, together with our families. We don’t work. The world doesn’t intrude – not by phone, not by the Internet. For those 25 hours or so, all that we have is each other, our friends, our community, all locked within those few blocks of space around our home. We don't hear of earthquakes and war. We don't worry about bills and tests and deadlines. We simply enjoy. We rest. We relax.

In the army, those who can’t go home, still feel the difference. There’s no training on the Sabbath – nothing beyond the most important of tasks – defending the base, the area, the country. When you aren't on patrol, you are allowed to sleep, to rest. You don't have to do anything on any particular schedule. Those not needed for the weekend are usually allowed to go home. In Elie’s case, each of the three commanders takes a turn, each staying one weekend while the other two go home. So, this week, the commanders met to decide who goes, who stays, and when.

Elie really wanted next weekend off – the Shabbat at home with his family (his Hebrew birthday together), and then the holiday that follows Sunday night at his yeshiva with friends from many of the past years. He's been hoping for this weekend for weeks. One of the others immediately volunteered to stay up north. Elie was thrilled. Shabbat and Shavuot to do what he really wants. Feeling relieved, he volunteered to stay this weekend and the third commander would get the next weekend’s turn.

I got a call on Tuesday night telling me this. I accepted and adjusted. Ok, this weekend he won’t be home – his English birthday. Even after so many years in Israel, it’s hard for me not to associated the last day of May with the first day of Elie’s life. Adjust, I ordered myself. Be happy that he’s happy. Acceptance is a necessary skill a soldier's mother must learn. I'm trying and I even succeeded this first.

He called me Wednesday night again - unusual the last few weeks when we've had fewer conversations, but welcome nonetheless. The commander who was supposed to take the third weekend forgot his gun somewhere on base, Elie explained. I know enough about the army already to know that this is a major issue. The gun is like your right hand, your responsibility, your solemn duty to know at all times, even in sleep, where it is.

Sure enough, their commanding officer did indeed take it seriously, but decided to use this as another lesson. “You’re a commander now," Elie told me he heard the officer say. "What punishment would you give one of your soldiers? Punish yourself.”

Elie had already figured out what would happen, and so it was no surprise, he told me, that the young man soon came over and told Elie that he was "punishing" himself by canceling his weekend leave.

And so, fortune came to Elie on the misfortune of another. Elie would come home. My heart soared; I started to plan. I bought him two games for his new PSP (one to give him now for his English birthday and one to give him next week on his Hebrew birthday), I started thinking about what kind of cake to make him – what shape, what flavor. I defrosted meat for his favorite meatballs. I was thinking of buying balloons to decorate the living room and make it feel like a party. Elie’s coming home.

Ah, but I forgot the whims of fortune and the inevitability of change in the army. The other commander, like Elie, wants so much to go home. During these months, “home” sometimes means leaving the base on Thursday and coming back on Monday. Punishment for forgetting a gun means the weekend…but the weekend in Israel for most people begins Friday and so the young man figured out that he could go home today and come back tomorrow before the Sabbath and still fulfill the exact terms of his punishment. The officer probably felt his point was taken and decided not to get involved.

The problem, however, is that with both officers leaving Thursday, Elie is alone to handle things. He can't leave until one officer comes back. If he is to come home on Friday, now that the other young man decided to go home today, Elie must wait until this commander comes back to base. That means, under the best of conditions, that Elie could only leave the Golan in the early hours of the afternoon. He would probably still get home in time for the Sabbath, but it would leave him no time to relax, no time to do anything. He would come back exhausted; sleep, and go back.

I could hear the disappointment in his voice when he called to tell me today, and the anger. “He’s being stupid,” Elie told me. "He's giving up a whole weekend at home in a few weeks for one night now!" Elie didn't feel that he should lose out on his weekend, but technically, he was only being given the "gift" of going home because the other commander was offering to cover for Elie, since he would be there anyway.

“What can you do?” I asked Elie, already beginning to resign myself to his being home for such a short period of time. I offered to drive up north to get him – it still wasn’t really enough and so Elie decided that he would stay on base.

This is the Shabbat I volunteered for, he explained and so it is my Shabbat “on.” Elie explained that under the agreed upon dates, Elie would get off next weekend as planned and the one after that as well, when this commander who chose the third week was required to stay. If he’d agreed to let Elie go home for the whole weekend, this weekend would be both a punishment and a Shabbat on duty for him. Everyone would get the same amount of days off, only the order was switched. By choosing to take this Thursday for himself, this commander was making the weekend exchange unbalanced. What can you do, I asked Elie again.

Elie decided that it wasn't worth losing a long weekend for one day and two nights at home. If Elie stays on base, he is the commander in charge and the other commander's stay becomes only a punishment. In a few weeks, when the next turn to go home comes around, that commander will stay on base, and Elie will come home. "It's really silly," Elie said. A waste, really. To have two commanders up there for now reason.

But it's also not fair that if Elie comes home, he would get a shortened vacation and then be required to take the third Shabbat. All in all, both boys lose out. Elie loses out because he was set psychologically to come home and because it means he’ll be spending his English birthday there; the other commander loses out because he’ll be home one night and then have to take his full turn in a few weeks.

In the long run, it means Elie will be home for a greater period of time (two full weekends and the extra day of the holiday). In the short term, it means the roller coaster of emotions – his surprise at being allowed to come home and his disappointment at having it fall through at the last minute, caught us off guard again.

It’s a lesson we have to keep learning – nothing is final in the army until you walk through the door. The hard part for me this time, is not that this one only caught me, but that it seems to have caught Elie too. His voice betrayed first his happiness at being given the holiday weekend next week and his acceptance that he would be on base this weekend. Then the added happiness that he'd be home this weekend too, and then his frustration at having it taken away.

So, as Thursday ends and Friday approaches, I won’t be baking a birthday cake to celebrate Elie’s 21st birthday and I won’t have a chance to look at him at the exact moment of his birth and marvel at all he has become. But what I will do, and this has taken me quite a journey to get to, is accept that we’ll have his Hebrew birthday, that he'll be home next weekend, and that this lesson too is one he will carry with him. The ability to adjust to changing circumstances, to accept and adapt, is something that is so very important. I know too many people who can't adjust themselves and their surroundings to life's shifting realities. It's good, despite the disappointments along the way, that Elie is learning this lesson young. Sometimes, no matter what you will, no matter what you wish, the whims of fortune don't deliver. Who you are, is often summed up in how you handle that reality

We won't be with you on your birthday, at least not according to the solar calender, so I'll wish you health and happiness, safety and love. May you live to 120 and may each day of that long life be full of health and only good things and may you always know, deep in your heart, how much we love you, how proud we are, and how much we are always with you, even when we aren't together.

יום הולדת שמח, Elie - happy birthday.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

The Long Stretches

The army has a job - defending the land from its enemies, those who would seek to destroy it, to erase it from the map, as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has threatened. It accomplishes this task on a daily basis - only to have to do it again the next day, the next night, and the next day again. It is a well-built machine, trained, conditioned, streamlined for efficiency with its many divisions and tools and equipment focused on this single obligation.

But a major component of the army isn't even piece of equipment, a machine. Machines can be treated...well, like machines. They don't require personal attention, their feelings don't get hurt. They don't need praise and each one doesn't come with its own particular set of needs, history, background, family issues and more. In short, unlike some large machines that function based on the sum total of its mechanical components, the army functions by virtue of its soldiers, human beings, people. Even more vulnerable because the bulk of the standing army is comprised of young men ranging from their late teens to early twenties.

It is, in a very real sense, a human machine - vulnerable to illness, injury, morale and exhaustion. That is its weakness, and its strength. During the Yom Kippur War in 1973, one brave Israeli commander on the Golan Heights faced with the advancing Syrian army during a surprise attack on the holiest day of the Jewish year, radioed in his nearly hopeless position. He was in command of a handful of undamaged tanks, against what he estimated where about 200 Syrian tanks heading his way.

When the impact of what he was facing got through to his commanders, he was ordered to withdraw. Suicide is not an honored tradition of the Israeli army. Our men are taught to fight, but most important, they are taught to live - to fight today and tomorrow...but always to fight to live.

But this brave commander knew that in a very real sense, he was the only thing between those tanks and all of northern Israel. If he did as he was commanded, those tanks were going to roll down off the Golan Heights and right into northern Israeli cities and towns. Even if they would be stopped later on, the unarmed population below his unit was not prepared. In a moment of sheer bravery (and utter stupidity), Avigdor Kahalani pretended not to hear the order and held off those tanks until help arrived. There are many stories of such bravery, so many, too many.

So, what does this have to do with Elie? I'm not really sure. My mind has been more at peace the last few weeks, when I knew he was coming home each weekend, slipping right back into the fabric and routine of the family. Last week, when he went back up north, I knew it would be for a longer stretch of time and that he would be more out of touch than usual.

Conversely, the harder it is to reach him, the more I think of him in the middle of the day. I spoke to him for only a few minutes Thursday and not at all on Friday - something very unusual. It was a very quiet weekend for us at home. I lost several backgammon games to my middle son; we all worked on the big 2,000 piece jigsaw puzzle in the "sitting room", we slept, we talked. I played two games of BattleShip with my daughter (lost one, won one).

On Friday, as they always do, Elie's younger sister and brother asked if he would be coming home. After his having been home two weeks in a row, they were expecting it. I'd known all week that he wouldn't be home, but that didn't make me miss him less. My older daughter and son-in-law were away for the weekend as well - a quiet shabbat and a table that felt a little empty at times.

Another young man in Elie's battalion was home for the weekend. Seeing him, and how happy his parents were to have him home made me again grateful that the army remembers the nature of its components. The boys have to come home on a regular basis. Elie last week, others this week, and in a few weeks, Elie again. This coming home grounds them, it encourages them, it rests them. It motivates them.

This weekend, Elie was up there on the Golan Heights, where so many brave soldiers defend the northern part of our country. Elie probably won't be home this coming weekend either. He'll turn 21-years-old on Saturday, according to the English calendar - the second time in his life that I won't be with him to celebrate and tease him.

It's a long stretch of time - three weeks between visits this time. Elie wanted it this way and even volunteered to stay this coming weekend because he wants to be home the following weekend for the Jewish holiday of Shavuot. He wasn't home for Purim or for the Seder night of Passover, so he's hoping that this time, he can get leave. It's a wonderful, easy holiday. He'll spend the weekend with us and then go to his yeshiva and learn all night - in honor of Shavuot morning, when the people of Israel received the Torah.

Each year, we honor this day, remember that according to tradition, the Jewish people slept the night before, unaware of the great gift they would receive and so, to balance this out, each year, we stay up all night and learn until the first rays of the new day break through the darkness. Elie was born just a few days before this great holiday.

Children are born...but mothers give birth. The child becomes the star each year on his birthday, but in the background, the mother knows that this day is as much hers as his. He will celebrate and be congratulated, for all he has accomplished and all he has become in his 21 years on this earth but I'll know that I held him first, that I saw him first, that he was mine before I gave him to Israel.

We'll celebrate the following weekend, which actually coincides with his Hebrew birthday. I'll make him a cake and we'll hang the balloons. I'll buy him something, though I don't have a clue what it will be. He'll smile. He'll be home - his sister will draw him something and cover his bedroom door. His brothers will buy him something or make him something. He'll eat. He'll sleep. He'll fill the house with is presence, as he does each week and then, as he does each week, Elie will go back to the army, back to his responsibilities and the service he gives to the country we brought him to, but the country in which, ultimately, he will have to choose to live.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

A Drop of Rain, A Moment of Time

This past weekend went by very quickly. It started with Elie coming home much earlier than I expected. He'd left his northern base at such an early hour - I hadn't taken that into consideration. The connections were right, it worked out. At 11:00 a.m., I asked my second son to call Elie and ask when he would be home.

I like to know. I offer to get him from the bus stop if he chooses to catch a bus that doesn't come straight to the house. In the winter, I turned the heater on in his room. Now, I make sure his favorite drink is in the refrigerator, or, at very least, something is cooked and ready for him to eat. So, at 11:00 a.m., I looked and thought - I should find out what time he'll get here...and before I could turn thought into action, just a few minutes later, the front door opened and there he was.

He was exhausted. It was the first time that he didn't head straight for the food. Only after he'd slept for several hours, did he later explain that he'd only slept about 2 hours the night before. All I knew, at first, was that he was so tired, he couldn't even eat, and so, straight to bed he went.

When he woke up later, food was indeed his first thought - that and the cold ice tea that waited for him in the refrigerator and the brownies on the counter, and the chicken wings he loves. It was a relaxing weekend; overall, a quiet one.

At one point, Elie asked, "Did it rain here on Thursday morning?" I tried to remember back to Thursday. No, not that I remember. I had a business meeting in the coastal city of Netanya - no rain on the way there. No wet streets, etc.

"No, it didn't rain here. Did it rain up north?"

Elie explained that they had been out in the field that night and he woke to raindrops dripping through the top of the armored personnel carrier, right onto his head. He woke quickly, jumped up and shut the top and went back to sleep. What did the others do? I asked...where were they sleeping when it started to rain?

Elie smiled and said they were sleeping just outside. One of many minor perks the commander of the unit gets, it seems, is that he sleeps in the vehicle. So what happened when it suddenly started pouring? Most scrambled into the vehicle to get out of the rain, but one soldier just zipped himself inside his sleeping bag and went back to sleep.

"Do you know what we ate while we were out in the field?" Elie asked. Army rations, I thought to myself. Field provisions? Canned and packaged meals for the army on the go? He said this as he was going through a plastic container of small packets of ketchup, salad dressing, salt, pepper, mayonnaise and mustard and preparing to pack them for his return on Sunday. It must have been bad if he was already preparing to try to add some taste from these little packets. "Take the whole container," I suggested, already thinking of the bland food that must be inside those army rations.

"So, what did you eat when you were in the field?" I asked.

"Pizza," Elie told me with a grin.

"Pizza?" I asked incredulously. Yup, they ordered pizza to be delivered to the base and then went and got it and ate it in the field. What spoiled children, you are, I said to him, not meaning a word of it, but loving the moment anyway.

Spoiled children don't do what these young men are doing. Drafted they might have been, but each one could have come up with an excuse to get out of a combat unit. So many, too many, others do it here in Israel from all walks of life and all levels of religious persuasion. For all sorts of reasons and too many excuses. But these boys chose to serve in a combat unit. They spend their weeks getting filthy and exhausted, their nights having their sleep interrupted so they can do guard duty.

Each was asked, as my son was asked, "Will you serve in a combat unit?" and each answered that they would. Let them eat pizza, my heart said and I laughed. "Back in my day, soldiers had to eat cardboard and mud," I joked. Back in my America, none of my friends went to the army, none served, none were lost. None served their country, their nation and none were enriched by the responsibility and the reality entrusted to our sons here in Israel.

"Do you know how well the soldiers ate during the Lebanon War?" Elie asked me. He had told me before - yes, they ate better than ever, during the war. Those soldiers who were stationed within Israel, close to the border, were showered with all kinds of foods, pizza, and snacks - it was all most of Israel could do for them as they fought to defend our land and attempt to return two kidnapped soldiers (Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser). We sent them our prayers and all the love and food that could be delivered.

Elie will next be home in two weeks - at least according to the current plan. For some of that time, he will again be tested with his team - this time as their commander to see how well they work together. They will simulate war so that they will be strong enough to be a deterrent against future wars, until our enemies choose to make peace with us, until they accept our right to be here, until our sons no longer have to simulate war or prepare for the real ones.

Elie went back to his base well prepared - he took a large box of sauces (because he will be eating field rations and they do need to be spiced up) and he took a large box filled with homemade brownies that he shares with his unit. And, as always, he took a piece of my heart. But he left me with a smile - pizza in the field - how very Israeli!

Friday, May 16, 2008

Settling In; Accepting

If this week was about anything, it was about relaxing with the pattern of having a son in the army. Elie came home last weekend. Elie will be home this weekend. He traveled far up north for training last Sunday. He will travel far up north this coming Sunday as well.

We talked once during the week, or maybe twice. I called him to tell him some worrisome news about the child of dear friends because they were coming for lunch and I wanted Elie to already have absorbed the situation. Elie handles things calmly anyway, but I could hear the surprise in his voice when he said, "Your kidding, right?" and then he asked his questions and already I knew he was understanding and accepting. His final, "oh, ok," told me he was fast approaching the acceptance it took me much longer to reach and the understanding that a recent accident in which the child had been hit by a car was actually, as often these terrible things are, a blessing in disguise (please pray for Chayim Zvi ben Henya Devorah).

Other than that, we confirmed that he would be home on Friday, had spent some time in the field, and we'd talk when he got home. He sounded fine, tired, etc. but overall, he sounded...good, calm, content. I didn't hear loneliness; I didn't hear alone. He sounds challenged. He sounded interesting. He sounded good. He feels the limitations of the phone - we know that there are ears that listen and our conversations reflect this. We haven't worked out a code, a secret language only we understand. We know where he is. We know what he is doing. We know he is safe. We know we will see him soon. For now, that's enough - for now, that's the all of it.

Monday, May 12, 2008

The Security of My Son

A few times, very well meaning friends, relatives, and readers have suggested that for security reasons, I should be careful. I want to assure you that I am. I never post where Elie is - other than to say north, south, on the Lebanese border, close to Syria. There are miles and miles of border and dozens (if not more) of bases.

Where Elie was (note the past tense), he was well aware of listening ears and often spoke to me in ways that I knew that he knew - someone was listening. No matter - it is no secret that we have troops on all our borders, covering all areas, protecting against every threat.

By the time I posted that Elie and his battalion had a day off, they were likely already back up north. In any event, while in training, Elie is not responsible for watching the border. I did not identify the location where they were to meet, other than, perhaps, to say it was a central location (which again covers thousands of points, dozens of cities, intersections, and more).

Nothing is more important to me when writing this blog than the safety of my son and the soldiers around him. I weigh each piece of information carefully, but know that there is little doubt our enemies know way more than me. I asked Elie's commanding officer at one point if something he was telling me was confidential. He was explaining the path that Elie would take through the army, the months he would be in training, advanced training, etc.

Or smiled the most charming smile and said, "if I'm telling you, it isn't confidential."

At one point, I wrote about how Elie had overfilled the water bottle that he brought to the table, causing his grandmother to spill a little simply by lifting the bottle. I told Elie to be careful and asked why he'd put so much water in. Habit, he explained. In the army, you don't want to fill a bottle part way and have the water sloshing around, making noise while you are on maneuvers.

I wrote about the filled water bottle and, in the same post, I explained that Elie had gone back to base early Sunday morning. Again, I didn't write where that base was, only that Elie left early to get there.

My brother-in-law, who has always had a soft spot for Elie and reads each post to help bridge the huge geographical area that separates him from us, wrote to say he was concerned that I was giving away too much. I had no idea what he was talking about and so I asked him to explain.

No - telling the Arabs that Elie was going back to base Sunday morning is no secret. The army sends as many of its soldiers home as it can. Those who are not in combat units often have the weekends off when all but non-essential tasks are postponed in honor of the holiday. The key there, is that our borders remain well protected, our cities, our streets. But there is no training on the Sabbath, no exercises done for the sake of learning or practicing. It is a proper fighting force that guards our country, while those who are not needed get a much deserved chance to rest. On Sunday, it is back to full operation and that means all those who went home have to return. The soldiers are on the move - from every point to every point. No secret there.

But the water, he challenged. It made me smile and so I explained. You fill the bottle, so the Arabs can't hear you coming. What difference does it matter why they can't hear our soldiers - only that they can't hear them. Are we teaching them something that they don't know? Arabs that attack us with rockets and mortars on a daily basis do so from within Gaza and don't carry water. Those that try to sneak into our cities to blow up a bus or a mall worry about how many bullets and bombs they can carry, not how much water. They try to appear as one of us, relaxed and not about to commit murder. And, in the north, Hizbollah units may try to infiltrate to kidnap more soldiers as they did two years ago. They too understand that they are not likely to return and most definitely don't worry about carrying water with them.

In all of these cases, they have glorified the act, calling it martyrdom and they fully expect to die. Success to these terrorists is not returning home to victory. There is little thought to actually returning home. They are bound for the heaven in their minds and the promise of 72 virgins awaiting them. They will make their way as quietly as they can, but water is not an issue for them. Long before they can experience dehydration, they will be dead. The only question will be if they succeed in murdering Israelis before that death occurs.

There are secrets in the army - but like Or, Elie knows the lines and knows what he can tell me and what he can't. To say he is in the south is to describe a vast geographical area, well patrolled and guarded and completely meaningless to anyone seeking to decipher great military secrets. To say he is on the Lebanese border says nothing beyond what is known to Hizbollah and the Syrians. It is no secret that we keep our soldiers there and no secret that the Arabs know where these bases are. For this too, our army is prepared.

I have said Elie is in the artillery division, but never written what he does within his unit. I have never said the name of his unit, its symbol or how many serve. I have said Elie is part of a g'dud - so is every combat soldier.

I have written that Elie has a license to drive an armored personnel carrier, but never written more about the vehicle itself. And yesterday, when the army gave them a break and took them out for a day of culture, I waited until the day was over and my son and his unit were back where they were supposed to be (or on a bus in that direction) before even saying that they had been there.

Security is very important in Israel. We live with it every day to such an extent that it becomes second nature. I thank "Another Soldier's Mother from near Gaza" for worrying and caring enough to write. Her concern is justified and something we all must watch.

We must be very careful, as you very correctly write, to guard our sons and what they tell us so that we give nothing away to our enemies and those who would harm them (and us).

But we must balance this with the need to explain to others the fundamental realities of our life here in Israel. Our sons are soldiers, but they are each human beings, our sons, our babies. We must work to help others outside Israel better understand our struggle to live here in our ancient homeland and our modern state. We face an enemy that would rather sneak into a pizza parlor and blow up a family, than risk going to war against our army. They find honor in death, we find joy in life.

Hannan Nasrallah, head of Hizbollah said it so clearly, "We have discovered how to hit the Jews where they are the most vulnerable. The Jews love life, so that is what we shall take away from them. We are going to win because they love life and we love death."

Nasrallah is right - we Jews love life and they love death. But he is wrong - it is not what makes us vulnerable, it is what makes us invincible. This is the message we must send to our friends (and yes, to our enemies as well).

We accomplish this by showing you a side of our sons that you may not see in the media and elsewhere. But I will never risk the security of my son or any soldier in Israel. Elie is safe up "somewhere up north" and we are all safe throughout our country because all our sons sit where they are and guard us and what you have to understand, those of you who do not know my son and other soldiers like them, is that they are so much more than the uniform they wear, the gun they tote.

That is one of the goals I have set here - for everyone to understand that my son is so many things. He is a Jew, an Israeli. He is a young man at the beginning of his life. He is the son of parents who are so proud of him. He's got these amazing eyes and a wicked smile and yes, of course, he is a soldier in our army.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

The Heart Sings

I could write about a great weekend with Elie home, and I will, when I'm not so tired and it's not so late, but as the day ends here in Israel, I'm left with one image that truly makes my heart sing. This morning, the army took Elie's entire "gidud" (don't ask me what that is or how many it includes - I don't know the English equivalent, but it's a large group) - except for the part that must stay up north - on a "culture day." I don't yet know where they took them, but Elie was to meet everyone at a central location at 9:00 a.m. It was probably a day in which they would go hiking, but it would likely include some historical site, something of significance to make the army take them there.

These sites are related to our history in this land. Over the course of Elie's being in the army, they have already taken him to Yad VaShem (the Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem), the Kotel (the Western Wall that remains from the Holy Temples), the City of David (an archaeological dig that has uncovered our ancient connections to this land). The army has taken them to several memorial sites and museums and much more.

Last night, while driving home from the mall (where we went to buy Elie a new strap for his gun...yes, it's sold in a regular camping store in the mall), he got a phone call from one of his soldiers. The young man explained, as he seems to try to explain to Elie on many occasions, why he cannot possibly get to the designated meeting place on time. It's a regular occurrence. This time, his sister was coming to visit at midnight and so the soldier didn't think he could get up on time. Last time, he needed to stay home and get a hair cut, and another time, he had to help his mother.

It was, given the many other excuses he has come up with, rather pathetic and Elie had little patience. He listened, questioned and finally ended with, "In short, be there tomorrow at 9:00." (It sounds better in Hebrew) and was so Israeli (and Elie).

So, we woke early, left too early, and despite the traffic, arrived at the location (or where we thought the location would be) at about 8:10 a.m. and there, waiting at the bus stop, was one soldier with the matching beret of the artillery unit. He had a friendly smile that flashed as Elie came into view. Already, we could see several other soldiers from Elie's unit converging from nearby.

Elie asked if the soldier was sure this was the correct location and they spoke a few moments about various reasons why this might or might not be the site. All the time, both seemed so happy just to be there, relaxed, easy. Elie got out of the car, got his backpack from the trunk and came back to the front of the car to get his gun. No, he wouldn't give me a kiss goodbye, and I didn't insist, but it was a sweet smile he gave me and a thanks. I pulled out into traffic, looking where I could turn around, but had to continue on a short distance. Finally, turning into a parking lot (followed by three other parents who also were looking for a place to turn around), I made my U-turn and got back on the main road.

Across the way, as I approached the growing group of soldiers (all with backpacks, blue berets and guns), I saw them greet each other, and Elie. On the one hand, I have seen it so many times already and on the other, I never get tired of watching. It's a quick joining of the hands, a slap on the shoulder, a moving slightly together. They are so at ease with one another, truly brothers in so many ways and I feel so relieved to give Elie back to them. I trust them to watch out for Elie. It's a silly thing to say, to feel, considering that Elie is one of the commanders and is responsible for them. Silly because Elie has the same training (or more). Silly, but still true - Israeli soldiers feel a connection and show it in the joy with which they greet each other after only a day or two or three apart. They show it with the smiles, the slaps of greeting. It's there in their eyes and I felt such joy in being given the chance to see it.

I slowed the car, hoping Elie would look up, and sure enough, just as I passed Elie looked, waved and smiled, and, in the simplest of terms, my heart sang. He looked so happy, among friends. It seems so silly - surrealistic, if you will. My son is a soldier in an army that has been at war with our neighbors for more than 60 years. At any moment, in all honestly, war could break out on any one of three fronts (and that is being optimistic).

While boys in his age are going to college in America and worrying about cars and girls, my son is learning how to attack our enemies with pinpoint accuracy; how to defend himself and his country. He's learned how to shoot a gun, throw a hand grenade, navigate in the dark and more skills than I can think about - and today, among his friends, he smiled with such joy. It was pure and simple and reminded me there is no where else I would have him be.

There are worries - and I've written about them. There are fears in the past and likely in the future and silly tears I've shed at night. And there is such joy that my son could be so much a part of this incredible thing called the army of Israel. The smile as he greeted and was greeted took me through my entire day. Right now, my guess is that Elie is on a bus somewhere driving north to rejoin the others so that training can resume tomorrow. Today was a bit of a break for them - well deserved and hopefully well enjoyed.

Lebanon is tense as Hizbollah and the Lebanese army battle for control over various areas. The US has confirmed that Israel hit a site where a nuclear reactor was being developed in Syria and relations are very tense there. The Syrians will want revenge, for that and more. Hizbollah wants to attack, and might if they feel it will better their position in Lebanon. The Palestinians murdered one innocent man yesterday in a shower of rockets and mortars and while things with Egypt and Jordan seem quiet, one never really knows what will happen in the Middle East as summer approaches. In short, it was a typical day in the Middle East, but none of that mattered to me today.

All of that is for tomorrow and the weeks to come - but for now, I'll go to sleep with the memory of the smile between friends that I was lucky enough to intercept and remember the look of simply belonging that I saw as Elie stood joking with his friends, soldiers in our army.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

The Switch

It's just after 6:00 p.m. here in Israel. Memorial Day is fast coming to a close. I lit a memorial candle last night. It burns for 24 hours. It is mostly gone and soon it will go out. At 8:00 p.m., Israel will do what it does each year at this time - a most amazing and hard to believe thing. It will, in an instant, switch from our deepest sadness to our greatest joy.

Before we can celebrate our Independence Day, we honor those who made it possible, by commemorating our Memorial Day. Soon, all over the land, we will go to parties, barbecues, and fireworks. We did not have Elie home for the first days of Passover, but he is home now and will go with us to see the fireworks and celebrate.

As hard as this Memorial Day has been, I can only hope that's how happy Yom Ha'Atzmaut (Independence Day) will be.

Happy Birthday, Israel - may you go from strength to strength.

Who He Stood Beside: Eyal Tsarfati, Aged 19

Eyal Tsarfati was only 19 years old when he was killed defending Israel. His parents came to his grave today, one of 22,437 families who mourn for their loves ones who died since the State of Israel was founded.

So little, do I know about this young man. He died in 1990 and today, Elie stood by his grave as his family came to pay their respects. Each of Elie's soldiers was assigned a cemetery and a name and had to call Elie when they arrived. Elie can tell me how many artillery soldiers died during their three years of military service, and how many died while doing reserve duty in the artillery division. By each, a soldier in the artillery division stood today.

Elie called his commanding officer when all of his soldiers had checked in. That commanding officer called his commanding officer and on it went. Today had to be perfect, from a logistics point of view, so that beside each soldier that has fallen, a soldier in today's army would stand. No family would arrive to an empty grave. Each has a soldier, a flag, a token of this nation's ongoing commitment to honor and remember their sacrifice. So little in return for such a great service given.

It was my hardest Memorial Day ever, my brain searching for appropriate thoughts as the siren wailed. I had already known Eyal's name because I asked Elie yesterday, though I didn't know he was only 19 when he died. In the two minutes that I stood and listened to the siren, I thought of Eyal and of a friend's son who was killed during the Second Lebanon War two years ago. I thought of Elie, begging God that I never live to mourn a son or a daughter.

Today isn't about Elie and the boys who serve in the army now. They stand as a quiet backdrop to the real heroes of the day, those who could not stand, could not comfort their families today. It was a hard day for Elie's younger sister too. She cried last night when she heard the siren and began listening to the memorial ceremony. We talked and I knew that she too, at only 8 years old, is projecting her fears and worries onto the day.

At schools around the country, after the siren sounds at 11:00 a.m. for two minutes, there is a ceremony. I felt it would be too much for my daughter; too great the fears she already faces. Each time something happens to a soldier, she asks if Elie is ok and last night she asked if she could stay awake to see him when he got home. Too close for her, this year, I thought. I called a friend, who told me to follow my heart. I called the school counselor, who told me to do what I felt was right and that she would have years to face memorial days. Eventually, she would have to, the counselor told me and as she knows our family, she knows that I have two more sons who will some day become soldiers (God willing).

Yes, I answered the counselor and my heart. Many years ahead to face, to give respect, to honor. But eight is young and the fear is great. Children deserve a chance to escape things that parents have to face and so I let her skip school and come with me to the office. She stood by me as the siren sounded; quiet and listening. In the morning, when we dropped Elie off at the national military cemetery on the way to the office, my daughter asked if we could go into the cemetery. "Not today," I told her. She wanted to prolong being with Elie, and she was curious. But today, the cemetery belongs to the families and I didn't feel it was right. She is young and full of questions.

I'm always amazed (and grateful) for the comments I receive (ok, not the one about how the writer accuses Israeli soldiers of being "responsible for killing young children, kicking millions of Palestinians out of their country, and raping thousands of young women!" (See: Eyes Closed by Hatred.) )

One fellow technical writer in Israel wrote to me and we've been having an ongoing discussion. He's right according to my head, but I can't seem to get my heart and fingers to listen to him. I thought about our discussion today as well. "My son didn't die," a bereaved parent told this technical writer, "he was killed." And so, this friend wrote to gently suggest that perhaps I should use the word "killed" and not "died" when referring to the deaths of soldiers.

He's right. Each of these young men (or women) was killed. Dying is a gentler word, I argued back. In my head, I know that he is right. Old people die, having lived a long life. My mind whirled with the words and I realized that my heart is fighting to give them in death what they were denied. It seems more peaceful to say someone died.

Denied peace during their lives, having fought our enemies and sacrificed their lives, I can only hope they have found peace now. May the memory of Eyal Tsarfati be eternally blessed and may his family and all the mourners of Israel find comfort in knowing that the deaths of their loved ones enables us to close the first 60 years of Israel's re-established history...and begin the next.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Israel's Memorial Day: Who Elie Stands Beside

Late last week, Elie commanded an armored personnel carrier as it moved his soldiers into the Golan Heights for a renewal of training. I was a little concerned about the drive - these vehicles have been known to turn over and as the commander, Elie would be standing and helping to guide the driver. I asked him to call me when he arrived, knowing that this time, he probably wouldn't. When he takes our car, he's very good about calling to say he arrived. It's a time-honored tradition handed down by each of the mothers in my family - the concept that you will only arrive safely if you know you have to call your mother at the end. Sure enough, by Thursday evening, Elie hadn't called. I knew he was fine (another of those accidental calls in which I could hear him talking in the distance told me he was alive and well), but I wanted to hear his voice, so I gave in and called.

"That's it, Elie, you didn't call when you got there. This is the last time I'm letting you take my Nagmash" [Hebrew abbreviation for the APC]. I was rewarded with his laugh and a comment about my car.

Elie has been looking forward to the training period. It's an easier, more relaxed schedule. The weight of the protection of the State is not on his shoulders. Other than securing their individual base, they do little but test and train themselves. That's on the higher level. On the simpler, more human level, it means that on Shabbat, when the army does not train, Elie and his soldiers can come home most weekends.

This week, Elie comes home tomorrow (Tuesday) and will be home until next Sunday. Starting Tuesday night at 8:00 p.m., a siren will sound throughout the land and again the country will go into mourning. Last week, it was for the six million Jews murdered during the Holocaust, and, in a more general sense, for all Jews who have died simply because they were Jews during the long exile that started in the year 70 CE and continued until 1948, with the re-establishment of the Jewish State of Israel in our ancient homeland. During the two minute siren in the morning, Elie stood, as did much of Israel, remembering and honoring those who died during the Holocaust.

This week, a uniquely Israeli event will happen. We will remember and then celebrate; we will mourn and then go from the deepest depths of despair to the greatest celebration our country has ever seen. On Wednesday (beginning Tuesday night), we will commemorate our Memorial Day to remember the tens of thousands of Israeli soldiers (and many thousands of others who have died as a result of terror attacks), and on Thursday (beginning Wednesday night), we will put aside our mourning to celebrate that for which they fought. Our independence, our freedom, our country. Israel has reached the age of sixty - sixty years since our founding, sixty years in which Jews all over the world have felt a sense of home, a sense of relief and security. Sixty years in which we have sent our sons to the army, and dreamed of peace.

Many countries mark a memorial day in which they honor their soldiers. In some places, it is a day of mourning; in too many places, it is a day of work or holiday sales. In Israel, we are so close to our soldiers, so close to families whose lives were forever changed by the worst news a family could imagine. In Israel, on Memorial Day, our places of entertainment are closed, our theaters and amusement parks shut for the day.

Our television and radio programs speak of those we have lost in somber and sad tones; even the music makes us cry. One station each year, scrolls the names of soldiers and victims of terror for 24 hours. All stations interview bereaved families to tell the stories of their sons and fathers and husbands. Each year, more names are added and the rate the names scroll just a little more quickly so that all will have their brief time of acknowledgement.

On Tuesday night, when the siren sounds, there will be ceremonies all over the country and on Wednesday, there will be more ceremonies and families will quietly go to the graves of their loved ones. On each grave, a flag has been placed - a reminder of why they were taken from their families, what they stood for, why they fell.

Last year, I read the story of what the paratroopers division does to remember their own. The article in the newspaper spoke of how beside the grave of each fallen paratrooper, a soldier in the current paratroopers division stands. The families come and see that their sons have not been forgotten. I couldn't imagine what goes through the head of that young man, whose job it is to simply stand there, in honor and in mourning. I can't imagine what the family thinks, seeing this young man stand so proud and straight, beside the grave of their son.

Last year, when I read that article, I didn't know that the artillery division does the same. I didn't know that my son would be asked to go and stand beside the grave of a fallen artillery soldier. I don't know what will go through Elie's mind as he stands beside that grave. How old will that boy be, that young man who died protecting our country.

I want to protect my son from such grief; such serious thoughts as death and families who come to mourn. Silly things come to mind - Elie, bring water against the heat and don't stand in the hot Middle Eastern sun for too long.

And as I concentrate on my son, I realize that someone will come and see my son standing beside their son, who cannot stand. I don't know how old their son was on the day he died; I can't imagine what they feel each year going to visit him there in that place where he will never grow older. I hope they will know that Elie is there to honor him, there to remind them that we remember. They will see the uniform their son wore; the color of the beret.

My heart hurts, just a little, for Elie too. It is just another thing I wish I could do for him, wish I could help him do, and yet another thing he must do alone.

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